FF’s failure doesn’t tell the full story about our broken political system

THE TV3 documentary series The Rise and Fall of Fianna Fáil is probably the first of many broadcast and print reviews of the party that seeks to place political events in a historical context.

The demise of Ireland’s once largest party deserves detailed examination.

Ursula Halligan, TV3’s political editor, argues the seeds of the downfall can be traced to organisational failure and that core Republicanism been made redundant through the Belfast Agreement. Replacing local Cumann with candidate-centred machines has happened in all parties. Without friends and family, TDs cannot get elected as potent appeal of being a generic party worker dies out. Bertie Ahern’s successful reform of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution didn’t lose FF a vote last February.

Most nauseating aspect of the television coverage was self-serving rubbish that emanated from former members of the last government. Mary Hannifin described Brian Cowen as “unluckiest” Taoiseach ever. Bertie Ahern cited the lack of adequate institutional advice. External factors have been repeatedly blamed. This garbage ignores the national conversation and economic divisions in the decade beyond 2001. They conveniently forget constant criticism from the likes of ISME, Jim Power and independent economists and EU authorities — all warned about the exponential growth of public expenditure. Endless admonitions were issued about basing recurring spending on stamp duty revenue of €6 billion that could not be sustained.

Costs of social partnership, particularly benchmarking, were not matters of consensus at the time.

Charlie McCreevy’s “I spend it when I have it” was plainly reckless and irresponsible. The programme of decentralisation to 50 regional centres was disastrous, completely unnecessary and a waste of resources. FF policies deliberately fanned the flames leading up to the 2002 and 2007 general elections. They must accept personal responsibility for decimation of popular support of the party through pursuit of short-term populist vote buying policies. There is no alibi or escape from the simple explanation that collapse of the economy caused FF’s demise. They perpetuated a myth that economic growth could maintain a virtuous cycle of more spending and less taxation.

At the start of the boom in February 2001, the EU commission and Finance Ministers Council issued formal warnings to the then government to cut expenditure by €400 million by the end of that year. The text of an official reprimand was issued to censure Ireland. The cabinet knew better, scoffing at their critics. In the following five years, they arrogantly dismissed all critics with total disdain. Their present amnesia seeks to deliberately airbrush away the extent to which numerous warnings were issued about fiscal, credit and property bubbles. It was no coincidence that NAMA’s 83 hotels, Sean Dunne’s D4 white elephant, Bernard McNamara’s Shelbourne hotel represented an en masse migration of developers into the sector. Why? Because the Government deliberately designed tax breaks to offset construction profits into hotel investment — wrong policies producing distorted prices, overcapacity and consequent bankruptcy.

Fianna Fáil presided over Fianna Fáil-ure with an endemic economic bust. There are defining moments in history, which explain transformation of party political landscapes. We should not overcomplicate the cause of FF’s calamity. Denial is still deep-rooted within the cabinet membership between 2001 to 2011. Yet, this is not the whole story. Maybe there is a deeper responsibility within our political culture and political class. Who’s to say, when glancing into the rear view mirror, that the political system spawned Bertie Ahern’s style of politics.

My thesis? The collective of past two Dála and electoral system bear primary culpability for our economic collapse. The biggest myth of all is that our electorate is one of the most sophisticated in the world. Horse manure. Our voters are addicted to soft options, easily misled and can always be bought off with election promises that buy support with their own money. Most of all, they adore parish pump politicians.

Prof Michael Marsh conducted a study during the last campaign that shows voters oppose reform of the electoral system and support candidates who prioritise more time to local instead of national issues. They want attentive visible people pleasers, who tell them what they want to hear. Multi-seat constituencies perpetuate rivalry within parties, rewarding endless clientelism. The whip system reduces backbenchers to lobby fodder

Speaking to former parliamentary colleagues, I’m depressed with the extent of their weekly door knocking to keep in touch with constituents. The futility of this growth in constituency work is beggar’s belief. TDs now have a constituency office, full-time secretary and personal assistant — all deployed to provide a cottage industry of letter writing and contact with grassroots. Cabinet ministers must attend funerals, functions, sports events, clinics and residents meetings. They are exhausted from a mind-boggling routine of petty mundane gladhanding. Dáil debates are reduced to Punch and Judy adversarial mudslinging or soundbites for local radio stations or procuring content for personalised newsletters. &

MEANWHILE, complex important issues are being funked. Controversial matters such as abortion law are being determined by courts, while they find another mechanism to defer decision-making. Thorny problems are referred to committees for perennial procrastination. We have ceded economic sovereignty to the EU/IMF/ECB because our political system has been dysfunctional. Where are the present-day independent minded courageous politicians (such as Des O’Malley, John Kelly and David Andrews) who told people fearlessly what they needed to hear. Lazy incumbents now merely parrot verbiage of lobby groups and vested interests. Urgency in reforming our political system has reached crisis point.

We had two vivid examples last week of déjà vu from the Bertie Ahern era. Juergen Stark, German ECB economist, pointed out the folly of Irish public sector pay and welfare rates being much higher than European counterparts. The Tánaiste excoriated him, accusing of unwarranted interference in a member state — Groundhog Day with 12 February 2001. The decision to partially privatise an ESB minority stake, while keeping it fully intact, undermines a decade of work to deregulate electricity power generation.

FG and Labour promised in the Programme for Government: Constitutional Convention, enhanced Oireachtas enquiry role, new Dáil procedural efficiencies, greater transparency of lobbyists and streamlined Local Government. Unless we radically fundamentally confront the malaise of our political culture, based on parish pump politics, nothing will significantly alter.

As we move towards centenary anniversaries of independence, we must acknowledge our current crop of politicians have cannibalised values of their own profession. The solution? Adoption of the German/European list electoral system, which creates a central cohort of policy-focused career politicians, not dependent on local visibility and delivery.

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